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When is Learnability More Important than Usability?


Photo by
Mark Brannan

Is it ok to ask your users to learn your interface? As UI design is maturing and the web is becoming a more advanced land of complex interfaces is it now unreasonable for every feature to be instantly usable? Touch devices have also entered the mainstream and added a multitude of interactions that UI designers can lean on.

So, how do you know when it is ok to hide features and ask your audience to learn your application? Is ‘learnability’ now more important than usability?

People like to feel that they are making progress. They like to feel that they are learning and mastering new knowledge and skills.

I recently wrote a short post listing my initial thoughts of ‘Reeder’ the RSS app for Mac.

I had heard so many superlatives about it from others that I was compelled to give it a try. However, on first showing I was massively disappointed, during my first attempt at using it, I was constantly guessing and was unsure about where to find the features I wanted.

Despite these initial UX grumbles, I know there is a huge audience out there who love using ‘Reeder’ and find using it a breeze. If you get over the initial confusion and spend time learning the interface, it becomes second nature and needs no thought to operate.

So, what factors allow you the chance to experiment with your user interface?


If the interface you are designing is critical to your users then it’s far more likely they are going to spend time learning how to use it. The more important the application is the more time they will spend trying to get used to it.

For example, if the application is a critical part of the user’s workflow and they would be far less productive without it, they are going to be far more willing to overcome initial confusion if the long term goal is worth it.


I use a handful of applications and websites everyday. Using them so regularly has meant their interface is now very familiar to me and I know exactly where everything is. I tend to perform the same tasks during every visit and because I perform them so frequently I can complete them without having to think about them.

The ‘Reeder’ app is a good example of an interface that people would use a lot. I keep up to date with my RSS feed at regular intervals during the day so any users of ‘Reeder’ are likely to get used to it very quickly.


This might sound counter-intuitive but the more someone pays for an application the more time they are going to invest in learning it. I’m not saying you should charge exorbitant amounts for your app so that you can neglect the user experience. However, people are far less likely to stop using something they have paid for.

Take iPhone apps for example, if I download a free app and I don’t instantly like it I will delete it without so much as a second thought. Alternatively, if I have decided to pay for an app, I’m going to make sure I invest a little bit of my time before deciding to keep or bin it.

One reason for this is the ‘Value Attribution’ theory that states we value things more when they cost more. If something is expensive then we assume it is worth the investment and our expectations rise. These expectations are likely to cause you to persevere past any initial problems.

It could also have something to do with the ‘Commitment & Consistency’ theory. People want to be seen acting consistently and if they have made a commitment to purchase something they are going to try harder to prove to themselves that it was a worthwhile purchase.


Another important factor determining how long people will spend trying to learn your interface is the amount and quality of the alternatives on offer. If there are lots of companies providing the same service then it’s likely you will try to find a better solution elsewhere.

However, if your app is unique in some way and it’s much harder to find a suitable substitute then your users are going to be forced to push through any difficulties until the app feels familiar.

Be careful though, you are unlikely to stay unique for long, so be sure to fix any usability issues before a better alternative comes along and makes it easy for your audience to leave you.


How many features does your application have? The more features you have within your interface the more complicated it will look. If your interface looks complicated your users are going to perceive it as difficult to use and expect it to take a long time to learn.

If it looks like it’s going to take a substantial investment in time to learn, people are going to be more apprehensive about starting the learning process.

Testing for learnability

One dilemma faced when designing an interface that needs to be learned is that it can be hard to test before putting it live.

On most projects I am involved with we build a prototype and then conduct some user tests, asking participants to complete some pre-defined tasks. We can then use the feedback gained from these to iterate the prototype. When we are happy with our solution we can then build it and put it live knowing our creation has been validated by our potential audience.

However, this type of testing doesn’t really lend itself to an interface that isn’t looking to be instantly understandable. It’s very likely that this type of interface would perform poorly during initial testing. It would be better to test in a timeframe in which you hope your audience would start to feel comfortable using your product.

With this in mind it would be recommended that this type of solution should be put live and iterated from there. This way you can learn from user statistics and test actual users who have chosen to try your site. After a given period of live time it might be a good idea to question your audience and ask them how much they understand about your interface.

A steep learning curve is better in the long run?

There has been some research into this field that would seem to suggest a steep learning curve will eventually lead users who persist with the application to use it more efficiently. (Haldar, 2011)

In the article Haldar cites some research conducted by Dr. Christof van Nimwegen (2005) where he outlines 3 recommendations for interface design:

Designers could consider making interactions “less assisted” to persuade users into specific behavior. This issue is beyond plain usability issues and focuses on more meta cognitive aspects of interface-induced behavior such as planfulness and user engagement.

…after the interruption, internalization-subjects kept improving, while externalization fell back… internalization-subjects continue to work on base of the plan-based strategy as they did before, while externalization on the other hand performs worse after interruption. They fell back depending on the interface, having a less elaborated plan.

…internalization- subjects had to build a stronger, more elaborated plan and could rely less on interface information, and indeed working with the internalized version resulted in having significantly better knowledge of the problems rules and problem space…


Google maps

Google are brilliant at designing for learnability. A lot of their apps are really simple upon first inspection and it’s very easy to use their core functions. However, if you delve a little deeper there is always very advanced functionality hidden away that once you find you can use again and again.

Google maps default view

At first glance this looks like a nice and basic view

Take Google maps as an example, finding a location on a map or planning a route is very easy. However, there are lots of other features that can be turned on if you know where to look. If you wanted to see photos of the locations then it’s possible by opening up a hidden menu behind the traffic option.

Google maps advanced features

There are some hidden features behind that traffic tab

Another Google product that uses advanced functionality is their newly design iOS app. The first time the app loads, the user is presented with a tutorial screen that highlights all of the functionality available. After this screen they have focused the display on the core functionality of the search bar. If a user needs to limit their search they can swipe the screen to the right to see the filter options.

Google maps advanced features

There are even hidden features behind that

Google iOS app

Another Google product with hidden functionality is the newly launched iOS app. This new update has a new UI, which could be confusing to use on first viewing. However, the designers have provided a tutorial screen that loads the first time the app is opened, which softens the learning curve by quickly pointing out all the features available.

Clicking on the question marks provides a short introduction to the feature giving the user just enough information to know if it will be useful to them.

Google iOS tutorial

When you first load the app, there are some helpful pointers to quickly tell users how things work

The basic screen of the app is a simple Google search bar, which most people will be familiar with using and will feel comfortable entering their search term into. However, for people who want to filter their search, to provide images only for example, can swipe the screen to the right to reveal extra filter options.

This isn’t something all users would want, so Google have cleverly decided to hide this extra functionality.

Google iOS hidden filters

If you swipe the screen to the right some hidden filters are revealed


The next time you are about to start an interface design, you should stop and think about the learning curve you are going to leave your users with. Creating an interface where every feature is easily accessible is not always the best option. It’s not always a bad thing to ask your users to experiment with your interface to find what they are looking for.

If the interface is an important tool then users will persist with it. If it’s an application that is used frequently then it’s less likely your audience will have to re-learn difficult actions.

Of course, I’m not trying to say your interfaces should be difficult to use, but I do want to make you think about possibly hiding some advanced features from users or trying to experiment with how you ask your audience to interact with your application. The ‘easiest’ solution is not necessarily the best solution for the end user in the long run.

About the Author

Michael Wilson

AtiKuSDesign is the creator and editor of the web and graphic design inspiration blog D-Lists. He lives and breathes design, spending 90% of his life online looking at a screen, finding inspiration everywhere. To add to his passion for design he is an experienced front-end and wordpress developer. He's recently taken to the world of UI design with a keen interest in User Experience. Follow him on twitter or follow his complete set of online ramblings via his flavors page


  • Anup Reply


    Good post. I think Alan Cooper also had a great piece on a similar thing in his excellent book, About Face 3

    You’ve described a scenario where this is important for certain types of consumer apps.

    For me this is also really important for complex/rich backoffice business applications.

    Cooper talks of intermediate users and targeting them rather than “beginner/first time users” for such apps as they have an incentive to learn the app to get their job done.

    It can make a lot of difference to how your UIs can function, e.g. instead of wizards guiding users through various steps, there might be a more complex looking screen offering more functionality in a more flexible manner letting the business user get their work done more effectively.

    It is an area I think that is often missing from discussions on UX as public facing web sites and web apps are usually the focal point, and even some consumer facing web apps may not be as complex as business apps.

  • Johnathan Reply

    I think it is extremely difficult finding balance between usability, accesability and as you said, “learnability”.

    You want everything to be accessable, but you don’t want your site or app to look like a desktop with shortcuts just plasterred all over the place. Then again, you don’t want your app or site to navigate precisely the same way as everyone els’s product, because you may feel you have a better way of doing it.
    Wanting to have a successful site or app launch is understandable, but what I try to keep in mind is:
    Do it the best way you know how, listen to feedback and adapt to what your users want.
    Would you agree?

  • Elizabeth Grenier Reply

    Isn’t “learnability” the new web 2.0 – all about interaction, enagagement, relationships, and real time results. Great post! -EG

  • Kristen Reply

    “If the interface you are designing is critical to your users then it’s far more likely they are going to spend time learning how to use it.” and “people are far less likely to stop using something they have paid for.”
    I bet these are assumptions that Quicken made… before took them out at the knees. You did touch on this in the Alternatives section, but the fact that there are no competitors is not an excuse for difficult-to-use interfaces, because you won’t be the only player in the market for long. I also think the research you cited on steep learning curves is only valid to the extent that there are few or no other options that are more elegant and easier to use.

    I’d argue that a usable interface IS a learnable interface. One interface will never be identical to another, thereby necessitating new designs. However, if the principles of good design are followed, if design decisions are made with psychological principles in mind, if an interface is clean and clear (transparent), then even if one has never seen it before, the learning curve should not be exorbitant. There is a not-so-fine line between “learnability” and just plain cognitive overhead. When an interface must be learned, there is a hurdle we must overcome to accomplish the goal that we want the application to facilitate.

    The statement about motivation is a dangerous one, and one that I don’t think applies to interfaces. While learning theory suggests that people are motivated by success (see Bandura’s sources of self-efficacy, I would steer clear of applying that to an interface design. An interface is most often a tool to access functionality that helps you accomplish a goal. The motivating factor is not mastery of the interface itself; it is mastery of the task you’re trying to accomplish through the tool. If we rely on thoughts that “people will be motivated to learn it” or “we’ll address it in training” then we quickly fall into a trap where we have a convenient excuse to fall back on.

    That being said, I *think* what you’re getting at in this post is along the lines of the 80/20 rule; ie focus on the ~20% of features that are critical, and the ~80% of features that are not as commonly used don’t need to be front and center, and I agree with your statement that “Creating an interface where every feature is easily accessible is not always the best option.”

    Thanks for starting the discussion, Michael!

  • Dave McFarland Reply

    The next step in this discussion is how do you make learning easier and more intuitive, or how do you bring usability to learning? If you can make the process of learning easier, then you’ll encourage people to delve deeper into the interface. Many video games provide good examples of this: as you begin a new game, you’ll often be provided with training in game mechanics — for example, another character will explain a feature of the game then ask you to try that it out, then comment on how well you did. This kind of in-game training and feedback is very useful, and as it’s presented at the exact moment a player needs to learn that skill it often succeeds at getting a player to learn the game.

    Simply relying on people to RTFM (“read the F****in’ manual”) isn’t a successful strategy, no matter how invested someone is in a program. But providing better, simpler, more engaging ways to learn an interface is a wide-open area for new research.

  • David Reply

    The bottom line is that your application has to provide enough value to justify the learning curve of the interface. The more powerful the application, the more willing people will be to learn the interface.

    If you are trying to sell an application, then you better take learnability into account when creating your business model because it will greatly affect your market reach.

    Good article bro!

  • Neha Reply

    Its true that we should always leave the scope to make our audience to learn stuff…as the web is growing so many new things are coming it is important for the users also to move to the new technology rather than using same old stuff.

    But catch here is those people who are not at all tech savvy, I am from India and I meet so many client who don’t even know that there is other browsers than IE, what you can expect from them? It is not easy to expect that your target audience is ready to learn *Your UI* unless and until you are have name like GOOGLE or iphone etc.

    But yes it will be good and make our designers and front-end developer job very easy if the audience start learning the UI

  • Andrew Turrell Reply

    Nice article!

    I think another element is the trust that users have in your brand. People will be more willing to take a flyer on your site/app if they trust you. A great example is Apple. People will try ANYTHING Apple puts out, site unseen, because they trust the brand.

    Something else that Apple is taking the lead on is with innovative interaction elements like multi-touch and gestural interactions. These elements have no visible affordances at all; they’re missing any sense of discoverability and learnability, as well as other traditional usability values. But people LOVE these features because it makes the interface feel very fresh and innovative, without all the visible buttons cluttering the interface.

  • Gaurav Mishra Reply

    For Simplicity I always count on Google for same. When the word comes ‘CLEVER’

    Great Article

  • ndizzle Reply

    You hit the nail on the head right there; to me the important 3 are frequency, importance and cost.

    If I use it all the time as part of my job and it cost a small fortune (Adobe Suite anyone?) then I’m happy to invest years in mastering it.

    However there are some caveats. I think that when it comes to online content (from a standard users perspective) there is an assumption that it will be quick and easy to use, “I just want to do X as quickly as possible”. They expect consistency and familiarity; almost like learning to use the internet was the barrier, and now everything should be in reach.

    I find this is the situation irrelivant of how often it’s used and the importance of the task.

  • Adrian Reply

    Good for read this type of articles, more experience from advanced users in ux.
    I like Google for simplicity.

  • Mark Reply

    I’ve not thought about the learnability side of design enough before reading this article. I’m always very anxious to make sure everything is very easy and simple to use from the start.

    But this is a freat article and you make some interesting points. It got me thinking about Facebook and how they make fairly dramatic changes to the UI every so often. It’s around these times a lot of my friends statuses are ‘I’m not using Facebook anymore’ or ‘Bring back the old Facebook’. All of these people are still using Facebook regularly so I guess it goes to show that if something is desirable enough, a user will make the effort to learn their way around it!

  • John Hyde Reply

    Facebook is great for simple things but has terrible usability for anything beyond.

    You can see something on a friend’s page and even sitting next to the friend you struggle to achieve the same on your own page.

    Then you try to do something and get no feedback whether it has actually worked or not.

    Facebook succeeds in spite of shocking usability. Learnability doesn’t even come into it.

  • Calgary Web Design Reply

    Learnability is important, but it’s not everything. Learnable user interfaces may be extremely cumbersome to experienced users.

  • Elyse Reply

    Really great post. I’m very curious about the distinction between usability (in this scenario, I guess defined as “it’s so obvious I don’t have to think about how to use it, it just works”) and learnability (the hidden advanced features). How do you make it clear that there are learnable features and patterns?

    There’s certainly an aspect of learnability that is “we keep using it so we figure it out” a la the Facebook redesigns mentioned above. Just because something is learnable doesn’t mean that it’s good learnability, I guess. What’s the distinction?

  • sam Reply

    I forgot to mention the 80/20 rule or Pareteo Principle in terms of complexity of interfaces and what to show/hide as detailed in the book Universal Principles of Design

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